Eighteen dead after coach bursts into flames in Bavaria

German investigators say bus may have already caught fire before collision with lorry

German media have reported that 18 people were killed when the bus they travelled in hit a semitrailer on a Bavarian motorway and both vehicles caught fire and burned out. Video: REUTERS


German crash investigators say a bus that caught fire on Monday morning, killing 18 passengers, may have been burning before it collided with an articulated lorry.

At 7.10am, minutes after the first alarm went out, firefighters at the scene in Stammbach, in Bavaria’s northern Franconia region, said they were unable to save anyone still on the bus.

“It was a terrible sight,” said local fire brigade head Andreas Henchel of a blaze so fierce that it scorched parts of the forest adjacent to the motorway.

Within minutes the bus and lorry were reduced to little more than their charred metal frames. One of two drivers and 30 members of a tour group from Saxony and Brandenburg – en route to South Tyrol, the Dolomites and Lake Garda in Italy – were able to flee the burning bus. Of the survivors, aged between 66 and 81, at least two were in a critical condition in hospital while others were suffering from shock. The driver of the lorry, carrying beds and cushions, survived the fire.

By Monday evening emergency workers had recovered 18 charred bodies from the wreck near Müncheberg on the A9 autobahn, one of Germany’s major north-south motor arteries. The bodies were removed for post mortems and identification while survivors were being treated in a clinic in Bayreuth.

The bus was just three years old and had passed its road safety text last April, while the driver had a 10-year accident-free record.

Preliminary probes suggested the bus made contact – at an angle – with the articulated lorry ahead of it on the motorway. But investigators at the scene said they were still investigating how the vehicles caught fire and burned so quickly.

“The heat development must have so strong that nothing flammable remained on bus, only the steel components are still recognisable,” said federal transport minister Alexander Dobrindt. “You can only imagine what that meant for people on the bus.”

Smouldering fire

Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her condolences to the relatives of the victims, her thanks to rescue crews, and wished the survivors a speedy recovery.

Leading German accident investigators suggested from preliminary analysis of the crash scene that, rather than a collision and fire, it was more likely that a smouldering fire made its way through the bus wiring before the driver noticed.

“The bus was on the hard shoulder so the driver must have tried to do something,” said Siegfried Brockman, a leading insurance investigator. Noting charred elements on the road behind the vehicle, he added: “I think the bus was burning before the collision, perhaps there was a fire in the engine area.”

His theory is that the bus driver noticed the fire, and tried to get as many people out of the bus before it spread to the petrol tank and caused an inferno, killing the driver and 17 others.

Other crash investigators disagreed, suggesting a collision between the two vehicles may have caused a short circuit and fire on the bus.